There's a rather intense debate happening now, pegged off a compelling footnote in the Baltimore story: a viral video of Baltimore resident Toya Graham smacking her teenage son who was getting ready to participate in the riots occurring there. Frankly, both sides have excellent points, making this a difficult topic to cover. That said, what's being missed by those condemning Ms. Graham's actions and, by extension her defenders as well as any other parent who spanks their child, is that the applause for Ms. Graham's behavior isn't an endorsement of child abuse or violence. In that moment, with those stakes, and with the eyes of the world watching, yes, she was entirely justified in what she did.
“That's my only son and at the end of the day I don't want him to be a Freddie Gray," Graham toldCBS News and she's damn right.
In the video, Ms. Graham smacks her son three times, tries to remove his hood and grabs him by the scruff of his neck to lead him away from the rest of the group. That's the extent of it. But listening some critics, you'd think she did a lot worse. (For a different perspective, read this excellent post by my friend Pat Perion, who's a child abuse investigator.)
Before we continue, I'll qualify my personal background with parenting. I raised a step-daughter from age three to age 18 with my ex-wife. I'm remarried now, and my step-daughter herself recently married a responsible, respectable husband. But many years ago, as a 6'4" 215 lb. parent of a diminutive child, I never doled out any spankings myself. Personally, I was uncomfortable with it, though I participated in other forms of parental discipline (I could be quite loud when necessary). In terms of spanking, though, I never thought it was quite fair for a large man to exercise corporal punishment on a small girl and, at the end of the day, I was self-aware of the potential to be seen as the Stereotypical Evil Step-Dad. But I never objected when my ex-wife gave her a well-timed spank on the butt -- a reaction that was always a last resort and never casual. The spankings were usually unexpected by our daughter during one of many typical childhood tantrums. Sometimes kids (most kids) do something so serious or behave in such an uncontrollable manner, the only solution is to shock the child back to reality.
Ms. Graham, in that moment, was more than justified in smacking a reality-check into her son before he went off to be potentially arrested, or to become "a Freddie Gray."
Spankings, at least in my view, shouldn't be a regular feature of parenting techniques. They shouldn't be part of standard operating procedure. It's a temporary crisis-resolution measure when all else fails. In situations when everything's out of control, there's no "if/then" negotiation to be had. When kids freak out, they're incapable of comprehending a carefully outlined quid pro quo. They simply don't care what you have to say until they finally settle down. How quickly they settle down depends on how parents react. Those reactions generally don't demand spankings, but sometimes it's the only thing.
Even though individual parenting styles are ultimately the prerogative of each parent, generally speaking, however, parenting these days has vastly overcompensated for older-school techniques. Parenting today involves too much eggshell-walking and way too much negotiation, undermining the authority of the parent and putting the child, whose decision-making ability and sense of reason hasn't fully developed, on equal ground as the parent. This is manifesting an entire generation of entitled, overly-indulged kids.
It's the parent who should set the rules and establish a routine. Unless a child is exceptionally bright and well-centered, parenting shouldn't be an ongoing summit meeting in which a six-year-old can somehow devise a reasonable middle-ground position while he or she is punching the dog. Parenting, to me, is a top down hierarchy. When a child reaches a certain level of adulthood and there's comparable experience and maturity, parenting can be a negotiation. Until then, it's the parent who's instructing the child about right and wrong. The child's only choice in the matter is to decide which way to go: the right way or the wrong way. If it's the wrong way, the parent's responsibility is to do his or her best to snap the child back well enough that the right away becomes more appealing. And so, Ms. Graham's actions.
The key here, too, is context and intent. The obvious fact that Ms. Graham was smacking her teenage son who, not unimportantly, had a good four to six inches on his Mom, is entirely different from, say, a 35-year-old Dad swinging open fists at an 16-year-old daughter. Generally, teenage boys of any race or background think they're immortal bad-asses whose rising testosterone is equal to their rising disrespect for their parent(s), especially Moms. Once a teenage boy reaches a certain age, it's tremendously difficult for Moms to maintain control. And teenage boys are a handful.
In Ms. Graham's case, her son was about to march off with his friends, pumped full of bravado, arrogance and adrenaline. What else was she supposed to do? Bribe him to come home? Bad idea. Bribing children sets a bad precedent, telegraphing to the child that he or she only needs to begin to behave badly in order to get a reward.
What else? She could've threatened to ground him. Also, bad idea. One thing teenagers do very well is to sneak out of the house. And with such a threat, do you think he would've acquiesced in front of his friends with the same level of submission? Maybe, maybe not. To me, a grounding is a 50/50 proposition. Many kids can talk their way out of a grounding. But embarrassing him and letting him have it with a few good open-palmed smacks to the head -- snapping him back to reality -- might've saved his life.
That's the context and the intent. Diffusing a harrowing situation and saving her son's life. Plus, she caught him red-handed. From now on, he'll likely be worried she'll catch him again. That sort of paranoia is a strong motivator to stay out of trouble.
Child abuse, on the other hand, often occurs randomly and without any justification. It involves increasingly barbaric forms of physical punishment for the most minor of infractions or, for that matter, no infractions at all. But in this case, there's no evidence of belt-whippings or cigar burns. Consequently, it's dishonest to paint Ms. Graham or those who support her with a child abuse brush. Again, think about what Ms. Graham was attempting to do, the odds of her failing, and the life-and-death consequences if she failed. Until we've walked a mile in Ms. Graham's shoes, and until we've faced down the same crisis, it's unfair to condemn her for what she did. Today, her son is alive and free, and some day, perhaps he'll be wise enough to thank her for it.
Discipline is absolutely a parent's most difficult job requirement, especially when you love a child so much it hurts. But as long as the discipline is fair and consistent, and spankings are a last resort, kids will be better off for it.